Illustrations by María Alconada Brooks
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Calls for reparations for slavery and other atrocities committed against Black people in the United States have become more prominent in recent years — especially in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder. Individual universities, churches and cities have introduced reparations efforts, and prominent organizations such as Black Lives Matter have pushed for reparations in their platforms.
While federal efforts have been much slower, Rep. Shelia Jackson Lee (D-Tex.) recently reintroduced H.R. 40, a bill backed by President Biden that would create a commission to study the impacts of slavery and reparations. According to historians such as Ashley D. Farmer and Ana Lucia Araujo, there has been a shift in attitudes about reparations among both racial justice organizations and the general public.
“I would say that it’s moved less from a radical fringe idea and more to the mainstream as we’ve gone on,” Farmer said.
But the issue of reparations continues to be massively divisive, with an April Post-ABC poll finding that less than 2 in 10 White Americans supported the idea, while two-thirds of Black Americans endorsed it. Even among supporters, there is vast disagreement about how to go about it. Would reparations be symbolic or material? If they’re material, what would that look like? How would we decide who gets them? Should the United States pay reparations to other nations it has colonized?
One problem is that the United States failed to deliver on promises for restitution in the immediate aftermath of abolition. At the end of the Civil War, Maj. Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman famously ordered “40 acres and a mule” to thousands of Black families. But the order was quickly reversed, and any land distributed was rescinded and returned to White Confederate landowners. Since then, racial inequalities have only compounded, further complicating the question of what a resolution might look like.
These conversations are nothing new. In fact, the first known petition for restitution nearly predates the country itself. It was filed in 1783 in Massachusetts by Belinda Sutton, a formerly enslaved woman, shortly after the American Revolution. Although many men have historically gotten the credit for
“I want to emphasize that Black women have come up with the central principles, ideas and organizational infrastructures since the beginning,” Farmer said. “And they’re not getting their due.”
Ahead of Juneteenth — one of the oldest celebrations commemorating the end of slavery in the United States — we asked historians to tell us about some of the Black women who have fought for reparations throughout U.S. history.
Belinda Sutton (petitioned for restitution 1783-1793)
Belinda Sutton’s petition for restitution is one of the first-known demands for reparations in the United States. Born in Ghana, she was enslaved in the West Indies and Massachusetts by Isaac Royall Jr., a wealthy landowner whose fortune contributed to the creation of Harvard’s Law School. When Royall, a Loyalist sympathizer, fled to Canada three days before the Revolutionary War, he offered Sutton emancipation and a pension. The promise of a pension went unfulfilled by Royall’s estate, so Sutton began petitioning a court in 1783. Although the court initially granted her request, only one payment was made, and she continued to petition the court numerous times until her death.
Although the term “reparations” was not used at the time, Araujo said the language of the petition, which was written with the assistance of an abolitionist-minded lawyer, was that of the demands for reparations. Namely, the petition emphasized the fact that Sutton’s labor helped Royall build his wealth:
“The face of your Petitioner, is now marked with the furrows of time, and her frame feebly bending under the oppression of years, while she, by the Laws of the Land, is denied the enjoyment of one morsel of that immense wealth, apart whereof hath been accumilated by her own industry, and the whole augmented by her servitude.”
Callie House (1896–1928)
In the decades after Reconstruction waned, Callie House led a mass movement demanding pensions for the aging and poor population of formerly enslaved people. A formerly enslaved woman herself, House traveled the United States organizing chapters of the National Ex-Slave Mutual Relief, Bounty and Pension Association by speaking in Black churches. The organization had chapters from New York to California — anywhere Black people were, said Mary Frances Berry, a historian, activist and primary biographer of House. The movement was a chance for the U.S. government to make good on its promises to compensate formerly enslaved people, Berry said.
“If the government had given them a pension — they didn’t ask for that much, they just wanted something to support these people — that would have taken care of the reparations issue for them,” Berry said.
Under House’s leadership, the organization sued the U.S. Treasury in a 1915 class-action lawsuit for reparations that led to the Supreme Court. The lawsuit, combined with House’s overwhelming success, made the government “furious,” Berry said. At one point, the government claimed House had at least 300,000 dues-paying members — as many dues-paying members as the NAACP has today.
The government retaliated against House through the federal Post Office Department, forbidding her organization from sending any mail on the grounds they were using the service to defraud members. The allegations led to House’s arrest for fraud in 1916.
“She was organizing people to do something she should’ve known the government wouldn’t do,” Berry said.
She was convicted by an all-White jury and incarcerated for a year in Jefferson City, Mo. She died at her home in Nashville a decade later, but her legacy lived on through the movements that came later.
“She was persistent,” Berry said. “She showed us how to be persistent until she couldn’t move anymore on it.”
Audley “Queen Mother” Moore (1898-1997)
One of the women who carried on House’s legacy was Audley Moore, later known by the honorific “Queen Mother.” She is considered the founder of the modern reparations movement and the mother of Black nationalism. In the late 50s and early 60s, Moore began campaigning for reparations by traveling the country. She mentored Malcolm X directly, and she encouraged him and other leaders to prioritize reparations as a central demand in their activism. She continued her activism through her death in 1997.
“She was really the person that reintroduced it into lexicon and put it as a demand of the Black liberation movement,” said Farmer, who is writing a book about Moore’s legacy.
Not only did Moore reintroduce the conversation of reparations, but she put forth ideas about what that might look like, from preferential treatment for employment to individual checks and land distribution. One of Moore’s most important legacies, Farmer notes, was that she began to untangle the complicated web of what reparations would look like — and what it would mean for America to reckon with white supremacy.
“There’s real questions about what a true reckoning and atonement even symbolically on a federal level would look like, and how that might severely undermine any claims to American exceptionalism, nationalism — everything that we hold dear,” Farmer said.
Today, organizations such as Black Lives Matter and National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America (N’COBRA), both of which have significant female leadership, are continuing to advocate for reparations on both the macro and micro level.
“The organization by women and leadership by women continues,” Berry said. “But we still are a long way I think from getting it done.”
N’COBRA, a reparations coalition founded in 1987, has been focusing efforts on legislation for reparations committees. These are task forces formed to study solutions that address the harms of slavery and systemic racism. While H.R. 40 is unlikely to pass the Senate on the national level, California launched a first-of-its-kind state committee in early June. While those efforts make their way through state and federal bureaucracy, the organization continues to work with a coalition of groups to address racial disparities in health care, education and wealth, according to Mashariki Jywanza, the organization’s national female co-chair.
“If we never, ever get a dime for reparations, we have a responsibility to our community, to our children, to try to do whatever we can to heal,” Jywanza said.
Still, Araujo said, many Americans still believe slavery was a past atrocity that doesn’t require present-day atonement or solutions.
“The misconception is to say, ‘Oh, I didn’t benefit from that. I have nothing to do with that,’” Araujo said. “But collectively, we have. … We’re still benefiting from the wealth that was created.”
Farmer noted that after the U.S. government failed to fulfill its promises of reparations during Reconstruction, the atrocities kept compounding, making conversations about reparations all-the-more urgent today.
“It is important for us to keep thinking about how we might actually trying to, at the very least, make a dent in this,” Farmer said. “Because otherwise, we’re stuck in this perpetual cycle of racism of harm, hate and inequality.”